“With a Little Help from My Friends” (1969) Count Basie

“With a Little Help From My Friends”

Composed by John Lennon and Paul McCartney; arranged by Bob Florence.

Recorded by Count Basie and His Orchestra on December 15, 1969 for Happy Tiger Records in New York.

William J. “Count” Basie, piano, directing: Eugene Coe, George “Sonny” Cohn, Luis Gasca, Waymon Reed, trumpets; Grover Mitchell, Melvin Wanzo, Frank Hooks, tenor trombones; Bill Hughes, bass and tenor trombone; Marshal Royal, first alto saxophone; Bobby Plater, alto saxophone; Eric Dixon and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, tenor saxophones; Charlie Fowlkes, baritone saxophone; Freddie Green, guitar; Norman Keenan, bass; Harold Jones, drums.

Count Basie -1969.

The story: As anyone who has ever visited this blog knows, I like history. I would like to take you on little historical and musical expedition (revolving around swing of course), that will eventually explain what Jelly Roll Morton and the Beatles had in common.

This little fable starts in 1905, the year Ferdinand La Mothe, aka Jelly Roll Morton, said was when he composed “King Porter Stomp.” Morton first recorded this composition in 1923 as a piano solo, but did not file a copyright on the tune until 1924. That year, Morton recorded a duet version with Louis Armstrong’s mentor, cornetist Joe “King” Oliver. Morton said that the tune was named after his friend and fellow pianist Porter King. So far so good.

Jelly Roll Morton – 1936.

“King Porter Stomp” was recorded in 1925 by Fletcher Henderson and his band. That recording included the trumpet-playing of a young Louis Armstrong, who was then a member of the Henderson band. Unfortunately, that recording was not issued. The piece then seemed to fade away for a time. Henderson rediscovered it in 1928, revised his arrangement of it and recorded it in that year. “King Porter Stomp” continued to evolve, with another Henderson recording of it being made in 1932, entitled “The New King Porter Stomp.” Henderson revised it further yet, and recorded it again in 1933. Fletcher then encountered a number of problems that forced him to give up his band in late 1934.

Coincidentally, a young clarinetist called Benny Goodman was just getting his new band started in late 1934. He needed arrangements for his band that would swing. Henderson happily sold Goodman many of the arrangements his band had been playing for years, including the latest iteration of “King Porter Stomp.” Goodman and his band played the Henderson arrangement of “King Porter Stomp” for many months before BG’s band developed musically to a point where he thought it was ready to give “KPS” a respectable performance on record. Benny implored the number one free-lance trumpeter in New York in 1935, Bunny Berigan, to perform with the Goodman band at its July 1 Victor recording session, and play the trumpet introduction and jazz solo that were such important parts of the Henderson arrangement. The Goodman recording of “King Porter Stomp” made for Victor is wonderful. You can listen to it and read about it by going to the search box at the upper right corner of this page, and typing in “King Porter Stomp.”

As a result of the popularity of the Goodman recording of “King Porter Stomp,” it became a staple of the repertoires of dozens of bands in the swing era, including that of Benny Goodman, of course. Any band that had any ability at all to swing had to be able to play “King Porter Stomp” at least passably well. One new band that appeared on the swing scene in 1937 was led by Bunny Berigan, the trumpet star of Benny Goodman’s classic recording of “King Porter Stomp.” Audiences for the new Berigan band constantly demanded that Bunny play “King Porter Stomp,” and to please them he did. But Berigan had the sneaking suspicion that every time he played “King Porter Stomp” with his band, he was giving Benny Goodman some free promotion, which Benny really didn’t need. So in the summer of 1938, Bunny asked his new trombonist/arranger Ray Conniff to put together a new tune based on the chord changes of “King Porter Stomp.” Conniff did this, and the resulting

Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra recording “Gangbusters’ Holiday” March 15, 1939.

composition was called “Gangbusters’ Holiday.” After that, whenever people would ask Berigan to play “King Porter Stomp,” he would play “Gangbusters’ Holiday.” Most people scratched their head, got to swinging, and forgot about “King Porter Stomp,” at least for a little while. (I will soon be posting a discussion of “Gangbusters’ Holiday” on the sister blog of swingandbeyond.com, bunnyberiganmrtrumpet.com. It will feature the drumming of Buddy Rich.)

Meanwhile, Benny Goodman, who had the ability to play the same tunes hundreds if not thousands of times, and still enjoy playing them, was finally, by the early 1940s, getting tired of playing “King Porter Stomp.” As he and the members of his various sextets began throwing pieces of various and perhaps over-played songs together as a point of departure for jazz improvisation, they gradually refined a cohesive jazz vehicle that had in it elements of “Christopher Columbus” (long a staple of the BG band book), “Jeepers Creepers,” which had been recorded by scads of swing artists, and “King Porter Stomp.” The new piece that emerged from this musical Mulligan’s stew was eventually called “Slipped Disc,” a pun that made reference to BG’s chronic back problems.

Years, indeed decades passed. Many bands continued playing “King Porter Stomp.” Benny Goodman returned to it, often. It had entered the mainstream of American music. Various idioms of popular music, including rock, had displaced swing as the music of the young in America, and in Great Britain. A quartet of young British rockers called the Beatles came together in 1960 and began performing and recording original songs composed by two of the quartet’s members, John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

Although I am hardly an expert on the music of the Beatles,I am nevertheless aware of many of their songs. One of the best songs produced by Lennon and McCartney and performed memorably by the Beatles was “With a Little Help From My Friends.” It was very popular in the late 1960s.

George, Paul, Ringo and John – 1964.

Curiously, in 1969, word began to seep out in the music business that Count Basie was planning to record an entire album of Beatles tunes.(*) Jazz purists were aghast. Basie, as usual, was serene. He retained the services of arranger Bob Florence, and between the two of them, they created an attractive variety of music that eventually was recorded on an LP entitled: “Basie on the Beatles.” I bought the original LP in about 1970. It was on the short-lived Happy Tiger label. (In those days, long after big bands were contracted to record exclusively for one record label, the Basie band, like other big bands then still on the scene, would record for whoever the highest bidder was.) To my ears, the music on that album was very good in 1970, and still sounds good to me. Some of the charts required bassist Norman Keenan to use a Fender electric bass, which he does with great skill and restraint. (This was unfortunately seldom done.Most bassists used the electric bass like an amplified jack-hammer.) Basie, tastefully and skillfully, played the Hammond organ on a few tracks. Even Freddie Green, the pulse of the Basie rhythm section for (by then) over thirty years, sometimes laid down his acoustical guitar and picked up maracas.

Despite the fact that the music on this album was performed and recorded beautifully (**), in the marketplace it was neither fish nor fowl: Most rock fans could never listen to the Basie band “defile” (a misguided opinion) Lennon and McCartney tunes; and most jazz fans could never listen to the Basie band play Beatles music which they felt, incorrectly, was incompatible with jazz and swing. Consequently, the album appeared, was largely ignored, and vanished. It seems that crossing-over in music (as in other human endeavors), is almost always fraught.

In my youthful (and blissful) ignorance of all these divisions and prejudices, I bought and enjoyed “Basie of the Beatles.” What I subsequently learned was that the Basie band, through its almost five decades of existence, was first, last and always a swing band. Swing bands, from the very beginning, mixed pop music with jazz. In his album “Basie on the Beatles,” Basie was doing what he had been doing more or less continuously since 1936: using currently popular songs as a point of departure for jazz and swing. The Lennon-McCartney tunes Basie included on that album proved to be perfectly suited for what the Basie band did so very well: swing.

The music: That brings us to the end of our little musical/historical fable. If you listen carefully, you will hear as the basis for one of the secondary melodies of “With a Little Help From My Friends” (where Ringo (I think) sang: “Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends,”) a set of chords on which a part of “King Porter Stomp” is built. Those chords certainly fit perfectly into the Beatles’ tune. Musicians call this “borrowing.” Papa Jelly Roll must be smiling…somewhere.

The Count Basie band was always and will forever be remembered as a swing band. The Basie band, from its inception in the mid-1930s and for the next five decades, was an unstoppable swing machine. Many brilliant musicians contributed to the swinging legacy of the Basie band over the years, but none more powerfully or pervasively than Basie himself. If Basie were alive today and reading this, he would blush, and say to anyone who would listen “Hey, I was just a piano player.” But what a piano player! What Basie did unobtrusively at the piano was so subtle that most casual listeners were unaware of his presence. But the musicians who played with him were always aware of his musical presence, which was electric, and they were always stimulated by what he did. Basie’s deceptively simple solos, where he reined-in a considerable keyboard technique, were so aphoristic yet right musically, that he was during most of his career the most imitated pianist in jazz. His comping (jazz-talk for accompanying), was always so incisive, so swinging, and so inspiring, that it caused the playing of the musicians who had the pleasure of performing with him to take flight.

In this performance of “With a Little Help From My Friends,” we hear the late-1960s Basie band, and Basie himself, swinging subtly but mightily.The hallmarks of that band were virtuoso ensemble playing, inspired jazz solos, and the unique rhythmic propulsion supplied by Basie’s piano and Freddy Green’s unamplified acoustical guitar, abetted by the strong bass playing of Norman Keenan and the colorful, aggressive drumming of Harold Jones.

Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis (L) and Charlie Fowlkes – 1960s.

Basie’s noodling starts things off in the intro. As the first chorus begins,he is joined by Green. Swing ensues immediately. In this chorus we hear the various ensembles supported in quintessential fashion by the Basie-led rhythm section.Toward the end of the first chorus,the chords that originated in “King Porter Stomp” appear, and then reappear at various places throughout the rest of this performance.They provide the harmonic basis for jazz solos by Basie, and then Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis on tenor saxophone. Jaws was one of the most idiosyncratic of tenor soloists, with his raspy, edgy sound, and his shrieks and squeals. But he was a crowd-pleaser who spent quite a few years with Basie.

I can only speculate if any of the Beatles were aware of “King Porter Stomp,” but I would not be surprised if they were. The tradition of musicians “borrowing” from one another is a long one, and very often is done as a way for one musician to pay his/her respects to another musician they admire. Just before release of the “Basie on the Beatles” album, there was some correspondence between Basie and Ringo Starr. Basie had this part of that correspondence printed on the back of the dust jacket of the album:

“On October 1, 1969 I asked Count Basie if he would be able to do an arrangement of ‘Night and Day’ for me to sing on an album I’m doing. Five days later, a complete score arrived. So thanks Count. It gives me great pleasure writing a few words on the back of your nice album. John, George and Paul thank you for what you’ve done with their songs, and we’re all delighted to see the barriers come down between music makers.With a little help from our friends we can all get high on the music.That’s about it. I’m a man of few words–but it’s a lovely album and I know that it will bring pleasure to millions.Good luck and love.” Ringo Starr.

Friends, after all, help friends.

(*) Actually, “Basie on the Beatles” was the second Basie/Beatles LP. “Basie’s Beatle Bag” was recorded for Verve in May of 1966 with arrangements by Chico O’Farrill.

(**) Most tracks, including “With a Little Help From My Friends,” were recorded by audio engineer supreme Phil Ramone. Though the original LP was annoyingly hissy, a defect of the vinyl pressing, later issues on CD are crystal clear. Incredibly, the Basie band recorded all eleven tunes for the “Basie on the Beatles” album on one day, December 15, 1969. Phil Ramone supervised the first seven tunes recorded; Bruce Swedian supervised the last four.

The recording presented in this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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